My Father’s Tractor

By Richard Gilbert An early version of this memoir essay appeared in SNReview When I was growing up in Florida, Mom would take us in the summer to visit our old Georgia hometown. When I played with children there, I knew that Leesburg was where I should have been living instead of Satellite Beach. “Listen,” a boy said to me one night, “that’s hounds on a trail down on the Muckalee.” The romance of coonhounds baying in the swamps and my sense of having been torn from that world almost brought me to tears. By the time I was a teenager, the differences between my Georgia peers and myself had become too stark for me to enjoy visiting at all. I’d imprinted on the landscape, however, on the vast fields relieved by dark islands of pine and bordered by creeks haunted by alligators. My earliest memories cluster there. Dad brushes silently past me into the white farmhouse as I stand looking at him. Screams and running as a bat flies down our chimney and beats against the high ceiling. Mom takes us to see a long rattlesnake someone has lynched from an oak’s high limb for all to see. Dust rises behind a red tractor as my father disks. There’s booms and flying chunks as he dynamites stumps in a pasture. And my terror when Mom leaves me and Meg in the car and descends to the banks of the Muckalee Creek to pick magnolia blossoms; that’s where—has she forgotten?—she once showed me the path an alligator scuffed as it dragged one of Dad’s newborn calves into the black water. As a college student, feeling uncomfortably rootless, I drove to Leesburg myself. We’d been gone fifteen years by then. In the town’s only grocery, I told the proprietor that we’d lived on the Stage Road Ranch. The man thought for a moment. Then he said that my father’s ability to esti-

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mate the weight of a pen of market steers was the most remarkable skill he’d ever seen. I was proud that Dad’s competence as a cattleman was still honored. I suspected that he was remembered less fondly there by my mother’s close circle of friends. I’d sworn never to return, because of the pain of loss the place stirred up, but I visited again in middle age when a car trip took me through southwestern Georgia. I was several years into my own farming apprenticeship in Indiana by then. If I hadn’t yet grasped what drove me to the land, I was starting to better understand my father and his clashing dreams of flight and rootedness. In Leesburg I talked about him with a local couple as we ate fried quail, biscuits, and grits at their hunting lodge on property that bordered our old farm. The woman was the daughter of the mechanic who had serviced Dad’s tractors. The man was heir to this land, a peanut and cotton plantation whose most lucrative enterprise was leasing quail-hunting rights. “My Daddy said he’d never seen a farmer bring his tractors into town for service,” the woman said, looking accusatory. Her husband said, “Mine told me he’d never seen a man who worked like your father.” They stared at me across the dinner table, waiting. They were demanding, in an implicit southern way, that I explain my father. Who knows what they’d actually heard from their parents—they were my age—but undoubtedly it boiled down to Dad being a crazy Yankee. Unlike Mom, he hadn’t tried to ape a southern accent or otherwise change his behavior to fit in. He certainly hadn’t socialized in the local way, drinking, smoking, and telling funny stories about foolish behavior, his own and that of others. I’m sure he’d seemed aloof and humorless. My mother had been accepted there, even loved. She’d made a good impression right away by dressing us kids up every Sunday and marching us into the Baptist church. That led to her participation in dove suppers and bridge games. These were clannish people, but Mom was fun. She liked to laugh, was good at cards, a great cook, and wore nice clothes. She enjoyed them and their sto-

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ries. No, she wasn’t the question on the table. I searched for an adjective that would help this couple place my father, that would define his solitary nature without implying that it had anything to do with them, because of course it didn’t. I felt the usual pang of guilt for discussing him at all, never mind critically, with anyone outside the family. He needed interpreting, but doing so felt like a betrayal. Explaining my father without diminishing him would take hours, days, a lifetime. Yet the couple waited politely for an answer. # In 1978, soon after Dad bought a five-acre rectangle of central Florida for his retirement homestead, he went shopping for a tractor. Retired as vice president of the aerospace division of Pan American World Airways, he wanted some sort of farm business. Wary of used machinery, he bought new: a gleaming orange and blue Kubota tractor that was the product of a Japanese company so old it made John Deere look like a Come-Lately. “Dad’s got a neat tractor for the farm,” my brother Pete reported over the telephone. I asked him for more details, but we’d grown up in a beach town and his knowledge was exhausted. The excitement in his voice told me that Dad had gotten some sort of real tractor. On a trip home from Georgia, where I was working as a newspaper reporter, I made my acquaintance with the import from Osaka in its new shed. Although it was small—tiny compared to even the classic Ford 9N farm tractor—this was clearly a serious piece of machinery and no overgrown riding lawnmower. The Kubota B-6100E poised foursquare atop tires that gave it more than a foot of ground clearance. Weighing in at just under 1,000 pounds, the tractor gained additional ballast from the water filling its rear lug tires. A tidy compartment on the side carried a notice: “Tool Kit. Pull forcefully, and it will open.”

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It appeared that the little diesel was another of Florida’s introduced exotic species, although not yet as acclimated as armadillos or as newsworthy as walking catfish, smothering kudzu vines, or a newly escaped aquarium plant called hydrilla that was choking the state’s freshwater rivers. Simple, rugged, and compact, the Kubota exuded the charm of a bantam rooster. My father, who stood six-foot-two, was fond of small, elegant tools. But the Kubota may have been the first farm machinert he ever bought that was scaled realistically for the size and income of his enterprise. # Dad’s retirement dream was to turn their five acres of sand, Bahia grass, and live oak trees into a garden farm, and to raise a cash crop of some kind. He picked a romantic name for his place, Coral Tree Farm, after an airy tropical plant his old aviation buddy, my namesake, had given him. The Kubota would supply the muscle he no longer possessed. Still thinking like a cattleman, he first built a pole barn and a corral, and he even bought a head-squeeze before deciding that he wasn’t physically up to handling steers anymore. He explored raising pygmy goats for the pet market—his increasingly esoteric reading included Aids to Goatkeeping—and we were amused by the image of him leading a knee-high pot-bellied herd. He had a pond dug and stocked it with Wood ducks, so ornate they looked painted, in remembrance of the lake on his boyhood farm in Michigan and its extensive collection of wild waterfowl. My mother, in fidelity to her own roots, tended a flock of white and gray domestic geese and began to raise chickens and guinea fowl. As Dad wouldn’t permit Mom to slaughter their poultry for their table, the chickens’ and guineas’ only peril came from Florida’s numerous hawks and raccoons. Mom bought an incubator that could hatch 125 guinea eggs at once, and she kept it humming, staying well ahead of the predators. While Dad’s research into farm enterprises continued, he seeded buckwheat and then, dragging

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a petite disk behind his Kubota, he chopped the plants into the thin soil to add organic matter. He built a trellis and planted muscadines, the big southern slip-skin grapes, as a potential market crop, though he didn’t pursue that angle, probably because he couldn’t produce enough fruit to sell at wholesale, and selling retail would have required dealing with too many customers. Mom, at least, loved eating the grapes. In winter, he sowed annual ryegrass, which turned the farm into an emerald swatch in the khaki landscape ten miles from the Atlantic Ocean. He got the mania for generalized soil improvement out of his system with the realization that he didn’t need fertile soil for the enterprise he’d settled on. He had decided, through some process of elimination and affinity unknown to us, to go into the nursery business. He would raise trees in plastic pots on top of the ground. He devoured the literature, took horticulture classes at the local two-year college, and visited growers. But when he had his irrigation well tested he learned that its sulfurous liquid was almost as salty as seawater. We all thought this meant the end of his latest dream. Instead he switched to live oak trees and wax myrtle shrubs, natives that had evolved to tolerate salinity. Dad thereby stumbled into Florida’s native plant movement. Business at Coral Tree Farm was good. Dad netted as much as $15,000 a year from his vestpocket farm. When I visited, I saw oaks growing in plastic pots. Along his fences, wax myrtles sprawled to catch the sun in their thick, dull green leaves. He grew untold thousands of the shrubs by picking their gray peppercorn-like fruit, then roughly rolling them to scarify their tough shells; he sowed the seeds in the shade of a lath house. I think he loved his oaks best. When he had harvested all the acorns from the trees that shaded his farm, he collected from oaks in Orlando, at Disney World, where Meg worked. “I’ve heard optimism described as an old man planting an acorn,” he said. But Dad took the best care of his plants and got amazing growth rates from the oaks.

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When he wasn’t tending his nursery, he sipped iced tea in the house, looking out the window for his customers, nurserymen and builders, who headed for the “Ring Bell for Service!” sign— white with sprightly red script—but who seldom had a chance to ring before he was at their sides. # Dad worked long days in the sun, though his heart muscle was scarred from two major attacks. Mom thought that the unacknowledged family pain he carried probably had more to do with his heart troubles than his explanation—he was a driven person—or his doctors’ view that his arteries were clogged from Mom’s rich southern cooking. He’d grown up in the wake of the train wreck that had disfigured his mother’s face and severed one ear—doctors fashioned a flap of flesh as replacement. His father, Charles, abandoning Eva to her pain and grief, moved out of her bedroom. “You aren’t beautiful anymore,” he said, according to their middle daughter, Mary. Over the next decades Eva underwent thirty-seven operations on her face. My father once told my half-sister, Ann, of his nightly loyalty test as a boy when his parents went into separate rooms after dinner. Which one to follow? After Charles lost a fortune in the stock market crash of October, 1929, and spiraled into depression, Mary saw him curled like a baby on his bed. Charles, fifty-eight then, was treated by a therapist whom Eva later investigated and exposed as a charlatan—he wasn’t a Vienna-trained psychiatrist, a disciple of Freud—he hadn’t even been educated as a doctor. The man’s methods, coupled with the financial losses, undermined Charles’s sense of himself as a successful man. My father was fourteen years old on the Thanksgiving morning when he went looking for Charles in the silent Detroit mansion. Home from boarding school, Chuck had risen early because Charles had promised to take him rabbit hunting at their farm. He pushed open his father’s bedroom door, left ajar, and saw the empty bed. He found his father crumpled on the bathroom floor, a shotgun

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beside him on the bloody tile, his head shattered from the blast. The day of Charles’s death, Eva told the Detroit News that he’d killed himself because of poor health, but that story failed to lessen the stigma for his family. Suicide was a blow that compromised their social status. I can only imagine Chuck’s grief and loneliness after his father’s suicide. He certainly didn’t talk about it. As an adult, he didn’t seem to need other people. As Meg said to me when I was an angry teenager, “If you crawled inside his head you couldn’t stand the pain.” Mom tried to humanize him by telling me stories of how he drank, raced cars and airplanes, spent his inheritance, flew bombers over Japan. # The first time Kathy met my father has fixed itself in my mind as an historic event. It was 1983 and I’d just followed her from Ohio State to Indiana. Naturally I hoped my parents would like her and brought her to see them in Florida. At the Orlando airport Dad spotted me with my lover at the top of the stairs exiting the airplane. He noticed Kathy looking for him, her brow furrowed, scanning the crowd for a man she’d never met. “She’s Type A,” he said approvingly to me as we got our luggage. He was invoking his own personality, self-diagnosed from reading Type A Behavior and Your Heart. The bestseller described the hard-chargers who got a lot done, defying the indifference of the world, but who suffered from their own impatience and anger. When we got to Coral Tree Farm, Dad brought out his Cranbrook yearbooks to show her. He’d never done such a thing, showed anyone the elegant 1930s volumes—certainly never to any girlfriend of mine. There were many mentions and photographs of him in The Brook, reflecting his popularity and involvement. He was in every Christmas pageant and several plays, and he participated on the football, tennis, soccer, and rifle teams. He was captain of the fencing team and led

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the glee club. In his senior year he was chairman of the Red Cross and dance committees, and served as head prefect, a post modeled after English student governance that involved maintaining morale, discipline, and loyalty, taking attendance at Chapel, and meeting weekly with the headmaster. I was touched that Dad was giving Kathy this poignant endorsement. I suppose her status as a professor made my father’s sharing of his accomplishments in a lost world relevant, but he also was showing a pretty young woman the smoldering dreamboat he’d been. I think he sensed more about Kathy than their short acquaintance would suggest. His assessment happened in the way that we know some people at once, or presume we do, how we see in a countenance qualities we admire and need. Perhaps Dad saw her strength and the way it was allied with, and softened by, kindness. Yes, Kathy was sweet, without Type A anger, but she’d launched herself into the world almost as fiercely as he had. She didn’t have my fear—of drifting rootless, alone and unknown—but shared what must have been his terror: of being trapped, unable to take off for the horizon. # As his nursery prospered, Dad’s health declined. The business was too small for him to afford the help he needed and too large for him to operate alone. His heart was weakening. After six years as a nurseryman, he decided to close another chapter. Not only would he go out of business, he would sell the latest world he’d created—the board-and-batten cedar house, the duck pond, the guinea barn, Mom’s muscadine arbor. “Some people just retire,” I told him. “They enjoy doing things around a place.” He said nothing but shook his head quickly, looked away, saying it all: that wasn’t for him. He’d never putter, rest on his laurels, do nothing but relax—all of that a living death to him. He engaged with the world exclusively through work, and would increase his duties as a consultant for Pan American.

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Still, I’d like to think my parents might have stayed on the farm, entering a new phase of my father’s form of retirement, if a developer hadn’t bought the pinewoods beside them and built a twenty-four hour truck terminal. Wax myrtles, oaks, and slash pines couldn’t shield the farm from the glare of floodlights or from the noise of trucks grinding their gears at three o’clock in the morning. Dad got the developer to replace a woven-wire cattle fence with six feet of chain link, but that only emphasized how much had changed. At the time, the farm’s fate seemed quintessentially Floridian and especially cruel, but of course such gross transformations of landscape have become commonplace. The truck terminal’s owner bought Coral Tree Farm. As my parents buttoned up their place, he prepared to move into the gracious house he’d driven them from, the house where, in a few short years, they’d made so many memories. The oak-shaded plot was where Dad had returned to the land—once again, one last time—and with a mighty will had resurrected his boyhood dream. # Mom had always accommodated Dad’s sudden changes of locales and careers. Now she was ready to enact her own plan. She was displeased by the way Dad never consulted her. After his sale of Coral Tree Farm, she informed him she was separating from him and would move to an apartment. He was dumbfounded. His Rosie had divorced him three times, true, but it had been thirty years since the last. “I want to be the captain of my ship for once,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re doing this at sixty-eight years old,” he said. “You just watch me,” she replied. “Have I ever said I was going to do something I didn’t do?” Mom had no trouble recalling this conversation for her children, but she seemed less able to explain her need to break away. Meg told her that her response to Coral Tree Farm’s sale seemed

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excessive. But Mom needed to escape from Dad’s darkness. “If I don’t get out I’ll die,” she said. “I have to save myself.” # The next time I saw my parents, they were living apart, Mom in an apartment in Orlando, near Meg’s home, and Dad in a one-bedroom condominium with a guest loft, near the beach in Cape Canaveral. Mom had helped him find the condo and visited him, but she never stayed there. “He’s nervous as a cat when I’m there,” she told me. I imagine this was because he feared criticism of his domestic skills. The place was spotless, of course. He didn’t cook but ate all his meals out—“He can’t boil water,” Mom said—and he had a housekeeper. My father retained his quality of exile. A visitor from another world who’d been stranded when his world had flickered, dimmed, and died, he was apart from other people. We’d never had the sense of his moving through life with us, though we respected his separateness. When I was a boy, in Georgia, Mom once ordered Dad to punish me for pulling all their books from the shelves. She was pregnant and didn’t feel like whipping me herself. He spanked me, went in their bedroom, sat down, and cried. “I’ve proved I can beat up a five year old,” he said. She didn’t ask him to discipline me again for years. He would have been a nice balance to her hot temper, but he was removed, an infrequent visitor to the domestic sphere, in a relationship with his Rosie but relating to his children almost exclusively through her. He didn’t respond to life like other people, so everything he did and said seemed significant to his children. We monitored his activities. The area of the garage in Satellite Beach where he polished his shoes was sacrosanct and fascinating. Other fathers said and did things with their families, but not our father. Other families took vacations together, I noticed. I envied their togetherness but knew that was not his way. He had taken us water skiing and fishing. But he’d stopped

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when I was twelve, when he had his first heart attack, which almost killed him on Thanksgiving Day 1967, the thirty-fifth anniversary of his father’s suicide. Dad cut short our only family trip, to the Callaway Gardens resort in Georgia, even though he was supposed to be recuperating there for at least two weeks from the heart attack. He needed to return to whatever substitute universe he’d created; otherwise, he wasn’t in control. This wasn’t personal: he seemed to recognize the comforts of our world, but these were unavailable to him in his exile. When I was growing up it fascinated me to see him charm outsiders. His blue eyes sparkled with humor and a smile lit his face. It didn’t seem false, more a release of something deep within him that he shared rarely with us or when necessary with guests. The current of warmth that flowed from him at such times was palpable, the way the Gulf Stream off our beach coursed in a warm vein through the murky coastal chop. At parties he would make himself a weak bourbon, which was a prop, because he hardly sipped it. Always he commanded respect, a natural leader, but when he parted the clouds he was as charismatic as a movie star. As a kid I imitated the private father, the real one. The one who was sad. I hadn’t adjusted to our move to Florida. When I sassed Mom or was bad, which was a lot, she’d whip me with switches or belts or hit me with her bony hands, and once she thrashed me in the garage with a handy garden hose. I was shy, overly sensitive, withdrawn, plagued by nightmares and nosebleeds. I wet the bed. In school I daydreamed and doodled on my assignments. Eventually, I concerned Dad, and one morning at the breakfast table he suggested I read our newspaper’s comics page. When I was a little older, one afternoon he protested, as if reading my mind, “I’m not an unhappy man.” Did two negatives make a positive? I wasn’t buying it. He was trying to put the best face on it, but he couldn’t soften my inescapable conclusion: we’d lost something large and important and were toughing it out, like broken characters in a Hemingway novel. When he seemed happy he was

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only betraying our truth, pretending for outsiders, puzzling his other children, and infuriating me with his hypocrisy. Our truth was the loss of Stage Road Ranch. He never spoke of his real loss, the Thanksgiving morning loss, which I’d unknowingly inherited. I retreated into an imaginary world, where I had adventures on ranches and with wild animals in Africa. Later my sense of loss extended to nature, as I read in outdoor magazines about the North America that had been destroyed by market hunters, pollution, and development. I took as my emblem wild ducks, the numberless Canvasbacks and blue-billed Scaup in the estuary a mile from our house. I imagined them at night in their great rafts, tens of thousands of birds riding the dark waves in silent communion, each alone, and all together, and in their unity wholly immortal. # After almost two years apart, my parents reconciled. Mom moved out of her inland apartment and Dad sold his beach condo, and they met in the middle, settling into a stucco house with a swimming pool in a new subdivision called Suntree, a couple of miles from their old farm. They seemed happy. Dad continued his work as a consultant for Pan American and maintained the lawn and cars. As he contemplated yet another retirement, he was touched watching handicapped people struggle to stuff envelopes for Pan American. He told Mom he wanted to help them. He mentioned to me that maybe he’d learn to play the piano. As always, when Dad talked like a regular person, I didn’t know what to think. This was partly because, after the original statement, issued like a bulletin from an alien shore, he wasn’t open for discussion and sank back into silence. Maybe the piano was a way of saying he was growing, was open to change. But then he’d always been that way. At the Georgia ranch decades ago he’d taken correspondence courses to become certified as a physical therapist. I found this extracurricular activity dumbfounding as I struggled to become a

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farmer myself and experienced how consuming farming can be, especially after a relocation. Mom, pregnant with Pete, her fourth child, was Dad’s practice dummy. At night, after their three children were in bed, he had her climb onto the dining-room table so he could manipulate her joints. For another class, he put her in the bathtub for water therapy. He never worked as a therapist, and his physical modesty made unthinkable the image of his working with strangers’ bodies. Mom believed Dad’s interest stemmed from his own back problems, which dated from the winter of his father’s suicide. Dad was alone in the woods—getting in that rabbit hunt his father had promised him —when his back went into spasms. Crippled by the pain, he’d crawled home in the snow. In Satellite Beach, I’d seen him lying on the family room floor, curled in a fetal position from pain, waiting for an ambulance. Yet on weekends he built, single handedly, concrete-block benches and walls around our tract house. “With him,” Meg said, “it’s mind over matter.” We couldn’t imagine he would ever truly retire, become a piano-playing community volunteer. He also bought new books on writing, undoubtedly thinking of writing another book, but I didn’t ask him about his ideas. He had liked introducing people to aviation and agriculture, risky realms which his readers could enter safely with his clear prose. In his articles for flying magazines, as in Success Without Soil, he’d emphasized his own mistakes and near-fatal mishaps, presenting himself as a vaguely comic figure. His own heartbreaking childhood was the elephant in the room, but I knew he wouldn’t excavate that pain. He did feel the need for closure. He desperately wanted to talk with his surviving older sister, Mary, about their parents, and summoned her to Florida. When Mary and her husband, Bob, had come once before, visiting at Coral Tree Farm, I had never seen Dad so nervous. I had never perceived that he could be anxious, and desperate in situations he couldn’t control. I’d arrived as he was showing them the pond, where Mom’s geese and his wild ducks swam, and he introduced

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them to me as “Uncle Mary and Aunt Bob.” He and Mary had been enemies their entire lives, fighting for control of their father’s estate. “She is evil incarnate,” Dad said once to Mom. But he may have seen himself through her eyes—the little brother who had squandered his inheritance on two ranches, who lived in tacky Florida in a crackerbox house. Mary prided herself on knowing something of agriculture: she’d been named a Michigan Farmer of the Year for running Gilbert Farms’ 200-acre dairy operation while the men were occupied in World War II. She had remained in Bloomfield Hills, cushioned by layers of elegance, tended by servants, cultivating her wealth. Mary had liked Dad’s first wife, Jean, another heiress, and was patronizing toward Mom, who responded with a poor girl’s defensive pride. I’m sure Mary wasn’t amused by the fact that every time Mom had divorced Dad, he’d remarried the willowy Jean—very briefly. My perceptions of Mary are affected by the fact that she acknowledged Dad’s children with Jean, while noting Meg’s existence but not mine or that of my two brothers. When I’d met her that evening at Coral Tree Farm, she dispensed with me quickly and turned back to studying Dad’s pond, a mere puddle but something she might inform him how to improve. Mom’s report that Dad was hosting Mary again that October surprised me. His urgent question was whether his parents had been happy together, before his mother’s accident, before he was sent away to be reared by strangers, before the stock market crash. Mary’s verdict wasn’t pleasant: their father had collected their mother as another beautiful possession. The marriage was sterile, their father unable to love Eva as a person. Mom left the siblings talking for hours on the patio. Dad didn’t seem upset afterward. He’d loved his mother and no longer hated his father, and if Mary’s assessment fell short of his hopes for them, at least he no longer took it personally. Anyway, he was happy—Mom heard him tell Mary that. He said he finally knew what was important. He said the past year at Suntree had been

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the happiest of his life. # That Christmas we all gathered at Mom and Dad’s house, which inside was golden and red, sparkling with her decorations, and comforting to us with the smells of her cooking and the dark Spanish furniture from our childhood. There were grandchildren everywhere. My brother Pete’s daughter swam with Claire, the girls, both two years old, frightened by the image of a blue crab inset into the tiles on the pool’s bottom; they kept a cautious eye on the deep end, as if one of the ceramic claws might grab their skinny legs and pull them into the depths. Dad posed for pictures with my brother David’s son Chase, six months old, and Tom, only two months old. I told Dad of my plans for our Indiana homestead and showed him photographs of the pond we had dug with Kathy’s modest inheritance. The only structure on the property was my tractor shed, and Dad asked how his tractor was holding up. By then I felt confident in reporting that he was right: the tractor, turtle-like, would chug forever. Then Mom and Meg gathered the boys—David, Pete, and I—and told us that Dad’s heart was working at only eight percent capacity. He didn’t know it was that bad, they said—the doctor had told him twenty percent, bad enough. To get through airports during his consulting trips, he popped nitroglycerin pills. He wanted to talk to us now. Dad reclined in his armchair in the living room, his feet up on an ottoman. He said his heart was failing but tried to reassure us. “I’m not in pain,” he said. “I’m not suffering like I would be with cancer.” I fell on him, kissed his rough cheek, tried to hug him. He submitted quietly, without flinching, his face slightly turned, still, our first embrace. #

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On a Saturday night almost a year later, Meg called me in Indiana to say Dad had passed out while she and Dad and Mom were at dinner. By that time, his heart was barely pumping blood to his brain. He’d revived, and they wanted to put him on the phone. It didn’t sink in that surely I was about to talk with my father for the last time. We’d always had terse phone conversations—me needing more than he could give, frustrated. This time I was overwhelmed by our house construction and distracted by the coming work week. “You really gave everyone a scare,” I said lamely. “It goes with the territory,” he replied, the phrase epitomizing his stoicism and the unselfconscious machismo of his generation. # I was under water when my father died. That’s how I got the news, anyway, while submerged. It was early the next Monday morning and, getting ready for work, I’d immersed in the bathtub to wash my hair. There wasn’t a shower in the rental house where we were living while building. Kathy’s hand reached through the water and clutched at my arm. I surfaced, looked at her. “Your mother just called,” she said. “Your father has collapsed and they can’t revive him.” She’d just told me Dad was dead, but that’s not what I heard. This was just another medical emergency. He’d collapsed before. Mom had gone with Dad to the hospital, where they would be able to fix whatever was wrong. But he’d died already, of course, on the kitchen floor. She’d heard him make a sound, as if he had taken a blow, and then he was down. She rushed to his side. “I’m okay,” Chuck told Rosie. “Just let me lie here.” She said she was calling an ambulance and ran for the phone. “No, honey, don’t,” he said. He had a horror of being hooked to life support

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or becoming disabled and dependent. “Hang on,” she said, back beside him, holding his hand and looking into his face, thinking, Something is wrong with his eyes, they aren’t the right color, they’ve lost their color. # When I arrived at their house from the airport, Mom and I hugged. We tried not to sob, but my shoulders heaved. “It’s big,” she said, shaking her head and wiping her hazel eyes, standing back to look into mine. She said Pete would take me and David to see Dad. It wasn’t allowed, she said, but Pete, as a cop, could get us into the hospital’s morgue. It was our last chance to see him. His wishes were to be cremated, and for there to be no ceremony, to vanish without a trace. After the hospital, frightened by the wildness of my grief, I wrote his obituary for the local newspaper. I stayed up all night and wrote of his passions for aviation and agriculture, of his leadership of thousands of workers at the Kennedy Space Center. I didn’t mention how he secretly listened to country music on his truck’s radio, which he left on so that it blasted our ears when we borrowed the little red Chevy for errands. I didn’t write about his sense of humor, surprisingly silly. Or his humility, his intrinsic morality, or the way, without trying, he exuded authenticity. I didn’t say that he was an exile, a pilot who’d never really landed. Those were my perceptions, surely not close to his interior reality, and anyway what he’d done with his life was the point. We gathered the next morning in the living room, Mom and all of his children, her four and Jean’s two, Ann and Chuck. Ann, who’d insisted on some observance, read from the Episcopal Service for the Dead. Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob were there, having come from Michigan. Uncle Bob, a genial man, much older than my father, was somber; Aunt Mary looked stricken and was silent. Then some of us said a few things. Meg’s husband, a pilot, mentioned Dad’s membership in the Quiet Birdmen, a secretive fraternal order that Dad’s hero Charles Lindbergh had helped estab-

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lish. The room resonated with Dad’s life, with us, looking at each other, but especially with his wild years in California with Jean and Rosie. There I was, named after his best friend, who had been William Randolph Hearst’s favorite pilot; my brother David was named after another friend, a frequent weekend guest at the desert ranch, Dad’s former psychiatrist. Shortly after we all left, returning to our separate lives, Dad appeared to Mom in a dream. He was glowing in the way he could, and said, “I had no idea there was so much to learn.” That sounded like Dad and like the conception he would have of heaven. Mom put a wry spin on it: “He didn’t ask me how I was doing.” # On New Year’s Day, Mom and Meg and Pete walked down the curving sand lane at Coral Tree Farm. Pete carried a square cardboard box. How does one go about spreading ashes? he wondered. It doesn’t seem appropriate to dump them in a heap. Mom reached into the box and sank her fingers into the grainy residue—it isn’t like ashes at all, more like coarse fertilizer—and grabbed a handful, surprised by the white chips of bone. She opened her fist under the tree. Dad had told Mom, one day when they were living there, that he wanted his ashes scattered under the oak beside the farm’s well. The new owner, the developer, had given Mom permission. He’d liked Dad and had admired the way Dad had fought an impossible rear-guard action against him, extracting concessions before the zoning board. He’d ended up buying trees and shrubs from Dad to buffer the nursery from the glaring lights of his industrial zone. Surely he knew that he’d ruined the old man’s little Eden. Yet, he’d noticed, Chuck Gilbert never complained. Pete walked around the black trunk in a circle dispersing the ashes. His emotions felt like they were in a blender, and he tried to keep them from erupting. He couldn’t speak in front of Mom without risking sobs.

“My Father’s Tractor” by Richard Gilbert

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# One day the developer bulldozed Coral Tree Farm. He flattened the poultry barn, the grape arbor, the giant trees, and even the cedar house. There, on the bared sand beside his truck terminal, he paved the farm with concrete and erected an office park. But he spared Dad’s oak. Pete visits the tree when he travels through that part of the county. There’s a picnic table beneath it where the office workers take breaks. Nothing looks the same, but Pete walks and thinks about Dad and the farm, remembering the place in surprising detail. In his mind’s eye, he sees everything beneath the surface, everything that was obliterated. # “He was a perfectionist,” I finally said to that couple in Georgia. Such an inadequate word, but one that would end the conversation. They nodded gravely, whatever prejudices they’d had confirmed. Like him, I would become less sentimental about tools and value them for what they helped me accomplish. Dad’s headlong charge into domains as disparate as ranching, hydroponics, and testflying aircraft was about growing—a jazzed beginner, forever learning new skills to chase an improbable new dream. I’d soon take his example to Ohio and become a real farmer. And although I lacked his stubborn willpower, the example of how he adapted and kept going always inspired me. Something is always going awry, getting out of control, and otherwise cheating one’s fantasies on a farm. Every growing season offers the potential for a disaster of biblical proportions. My father didn’t expect things to be easy or fair. They’d never been. He put down his head and got back to work.

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